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It’s Not Always a Mr. Right! Increasing the Number of Women in Local Government Leadership
Jamie Shockley, Assistant City Manager at the City of Tonganoxie, KS
I’m preparing for a two-week vacation to Europe and I’ve have been procrastinating all week on writing this article. I have been struggling with the discussion on how to increase the number of women in leadership positions. As a woman who hopes to be a city manager someday, I am passionate about increasing the number of women in local government. I was fortunate to spend the first few years of my career working for some of the best women in the profession (shout out to Susan Sherman, Meredith Hauck, and Erin Vader), if women like them led all local government organizations, the world would be a better place. With that being said, I think the conversation we should have is greater than increasing the number of women in this profession.
Why is this conversation men versus women? We cannot say, “this is what men bring to the table, and this is what women bring to the table, and that’s why we need more women in the profession.” It’s about the qualities and values of a person that makes them fit to lead an organization. I have worked with both men and women in several different organizations, some were phenomenal and some left something to be desired. Those that excelled did so because of their individual personalities, values, and passion for public service.
Instead of focusing on gender, we should focus on bringing our organizations into the 21st century by making workplaces attractive to the brightest of the next generation – including both men and women. Our organizational cultures must promote work-life balance, encourage innovation, focus on employee engagement, and provide tools and flexibility needed to succeed. This allows an organization to recruit and retain talent. If local government had such cultures, we would see a greater percentage of women in leadership positions and a greater percentage of the younger generations entering the local government.
Now that I’ve stepped down from my soapbox, I want to make it clear that I believe the low percentage of women in local government leadership positions is an issue, and it’s important to increase the percentage. Perhaps I’m naïve because I’ve been surrounded by people who made me believe that I can do anything. As the youngest child and only female of three children, I grew up watching my older brothers playing sports and excelling at pretty much everything they did and I was motivated to follow in their footsteps. I also watched the strength my mom had to go back to school and earn her bachelor’s degree as a non-traditional student, while juggling three young children, and then begin a successful career. She earned a master’s degree at the same time my parents were putting three kids through college. I don’t remember a time in my childhood that my mom wasn’t in school. She overcame numerous hurdles to accomplish her goals. My dad was supportive of her ambition and her quest to better herself.
At a young age, my parents made it clear that I could do anything I wanted to do. It wouldn’t be easy and there would be barriers but success was possible. I’ve been fortunate to have worked for amazing female local government leaders, who faced obstacles in the profession, but demonstrated that women can do anything men can do, and oftentimes, they can do it better.
My significant other has been my biggest supporter. There is never a complaint about me working long hours, just support and encouragement. I mentioned to him that I was writing this article and he asked me about the percentage of women in leadership positions, and upon hearing the answer was appalled. He’s a keeper.
I write about the wonderful people in my life to demonstrate the importance of a strong support system. Local government is not an easy profession, and there are barriers a woman in local government faces throughout her career, including outdated assumptions that women can’t be good leaders. One of the best ways to increase the number of women in the profession is leading by example. Break through the glass ceiling, show that it can be done, surround yourself with encouragement and support, be the support system for someone, encourage young women in the profession, and discuss the barriers and rewards that of being a woman in a local government.
Let’s remember the conversation must include more than gender. We need to discuss how we can ensure the “best of the best,” regardless of gender, are leading our local governments.